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Anybody’s for the Taking: 28th St. Maarten Heineken Regatta

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” (King Lear).

At 09:00 on Friday, 7th March, the first of 21 classes thundered over the start line for the 28th St Maarten Heineken Regatta, and once again the world shrank to 37 square miles until 15:56 on Sunday afternoon when the last of the record-breaking 284 entries crossed the finish line.

This was a classic regatta, the kind which finds its own pure plotline and launches its own characters. With habitual victor Titan XII absent this year, no showboat to fill the wake of last year’s Volvo 70 ABN AMRO, a new Regatta Director, and 18-25 knot winds blowing throughout the event, this long weekend was anybody’s for the taking.

Thursday began with the 2nd Budget Marine Commodore’s Cup, a windward/leeward shake-down/warm-up for the spinnaker classes, which is in many ways punching well above its one-day, three-race allocation. With 56 boats taking part in seven classes, the Commodore’s Cup offers a unique opportunity to see what these boats can really do: close-quarter, rapid changeover sailing around the buoys, during which crew are able to graduate from ‘rail meat’ to skilled performers.

With Thursday wind blowing at 25 knots, race organizers wisely decided to reduce the scheduled three races to just two, as yachts were broaching, halyards popping, and spinnakers bursting. Among others, Chippewa lost the first of two jib halyards and the J/109 Vrijgezeilig suffered both a burst spinnaker and, briefly, a man overboard.

Spinnaker 5 Class winner, St. Croix’s J/100 Bad Girl, fresh from a Key West win over 300 boats in the PHRF National Championship, took the trophy as overall winner of the Budget Marine Commodore’s Cup, which race officials awarded by calculating which class had the closest corrected finishing times.

Friday’s Round the Island race delivered a similar dose of light carnage, including the dismasting of Pat Turner’s iconic trimaran Tryst. Conditions were tough but not impenetrable – arguably the ideal challenge for many of the saltier skippers who travel so far to come here. Two of the six Gunboats, the brand-new, fast cruising multihulls, were forced to retire, as were four of the Beachcat fleet – Pascal Marchais’ Hobie Tiger Dell-Snickers-Quiksilver won this one.

Other boats relished the conditions. Nils Erickson’s Formula 40 Trimaran Soma simply flew, taking line honors in 3 hrs 22 mins, but was pushed into third on corrected time by the SeaCart 30 True Look and Triple Jack.

Also catching the eye was the TP52 Panthera, who set up a mighty duel with the Farr Privateer. In Spinnaker 2, Farr 115 Sojana was also able to translate boat length into pace, clocking 3 hrs 27 on elapsed time.

As the regatta progressed, the J Boats started to exert their pedigree, particularly in Spinnaker 5 where St Croix’s Robert Armstrong on Bad Girl, a J/100, took four bullets in five races from a fleet that included four Melges 24. In Spinnaker 7, too, the J/109 Pocket Rocket, an Irish/Grenadian boat, was consistently fast. Ultimately, this class would go to Ian Hope Ross’s Kick ‘em Jenny.

“We were just very lucky,” said Hope Ross. “Their boat is faster in heavy air and the air just lightened up enough in the last leg to make the difference for us.”  Jonny Beamish from Pocket Rocket told it like it was: “We had them on the water, but not on rating.” Were the conditions tough? “We’ve raced the Irish Sea,” said Beamish. “This is a breeze!”

Spinnaker 4 threw up more close competition: although last year’s overall winner Lazy Dog was off the pace from the start, Jamie Dobbs’ Lost Horizon and Martinique’s Sailing Styl’Caraibes went into Sunday’s final race with all to sail for and finished within less than a minute between them on corrected time. The French boat was eventually awarded the class, with the two boats equal on points.

In Spinnaker 3, battle was as tight between Oystercatcher xxvi and Yani, a Marten 49, so much so that the two were neck and neck going into the final race. Although Yani, owned by the founder of Skype, aptly hung on after the dial-up to take line honors, the time was only enough to register 7th on corrected time. This class, then, went to Oystercatcher xxvi.

The two non-Spinnaker classes sailed only three races, allowing less room for error. Non-Spi 2 was a three-bullet walkover for Hugh Bailey’s Hugo B, but Non-Spi 1 saw just 15 seconds between Island Water World and Barbados’s Rapajam (which won the class) in the Round the Island race. Swan 100 Virago would have won the class, finishing almost an hour ahead of the fleet on Sunday, had it not been for a retirement on Friday.

The speed at which the Beach Cats move makes it hard enough to follow them as it is, yet barely a whisker separated the leaders: two minutes between 1st and 2nd on Friday, 40 seconds on Saturday, down to just seven on Sunday. This ultra-competitive, exhausting class went to Dell Snickers 972.

The regatta is always a nervous time for the charter companies that spawn the six Bareboat divisions, not least when lusty wind conditions mean collisions, and breakages are just as likely during anchoring as at the start line. In a division which is often marked by knocks and errors, a few performances stood out, especially in the 20-strong Bareboat 2 division, in which Phil Otis/Mark Duranty from BVI Yacht Charters won all three races. This was enough to secure the coveted Columbus Cup for best overall bareboat performance.

The St Maarten Cup, for the Most Worthy Overall Performance, however, went to Spinnaker One’s Panthera, who finished the regatta with a perfect score sheet – five wins in five races. Belonging to British Construction mogul Benny Kelly and largely crewed by a modest assembly of London property developers, Panthera duly took ownership of their class and closed a sail to remember.

“There are only what I would call two ‘rock star’ sailors on the boat,” said Panthera’s Russell Peters, himself no stranger to silverware. “The owner has put together not a bunch of rock stars but a bunch of people that gel together very well.”

Peters’ final comments sum up the general mood of this 28th regatta, (the first under stewardship of Heather Tackling): “We’ve had a great time. We couldn’t have hoped for the conditions to be better. To get 18-24 knots all week – I’ve done a lot of Caribbean Regattas and I’ve never had such a week of ‘Caribbean’ weather.”

Next year’s St. Marten Heineken:  March 05 – 08, 2009.  Full 2008 results www.heinekenregatta.com

Nick Marshall is an English journalist living on St. Maarten who was consultant editor of All At Sea from 2003 to 2005.

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